Traveling is one of the best ways to broaden your horizons, but planning a big trip can be overwhelming, especially for first-timers. From overpaying for flights and hotels to falling victim to cultural faux pas, the list of potential pitfalls is daunting. We talked to a number of globetrotters, including some travel bloggers, about mistakes they made when they were starting out so you can avoid the same missteps.
The mistake: "I went on a trip to visit a few European countries and thought that I was with people that were really cheap. I couldn't believe they weren't tipping. And I even felt bad and tried to tip extra graciously to make up for their rudeness. Only to find out that you don't have to tip in many European countries because the waitstaff gets paid a regular wage. So not only was I walking around judging these people in my head, I also spent way too much money tipping like a fool." – Domica Carter, Richmond, VA
The mistake: "I traveled to Barcelona with a friend. On one of the streets was a man with a table (an upturned box), three cups, and a dice. A small group of men were handing over money betting that they'd be able to follow which cup the dice was in as they were switched furiously around. They each kept up with the right cup and won. My friend and I thought that it would be easy and paid our money. Of course, the men were all in it together and we lost." – Charlotte Addicott, A Broad on a Board
The remedy: Read up on common scams before you visit a destination, as many are already quite well-known. Always keep a healthy sense of skepticism, especially during chance encounters, and know how to say "no thank you" – sometimes quite forcefully – if you're approached by someone who wants to give you or sell you something, sing you a song, or tell you a sob story.
The mistake: "I brushed my teeth with the tap water in developing countries, without thinking that it's as problematic as drinking it. I will also never eat lettuce in a foreign country again. No problem fitting in the skinny jeans after that experience." – Teresa Smith, Cincinnati, OH
The remedy: In general, drinking the tap water won't make you sick in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and a few other destinations. But in the rest of the world, you're better off sticking to bottled water, even when you're doing something like brushing your teeth. Sure, locals may be able to drink it without an issue, but you won't have the same immunities built up.
The mistake: "One of my first European trips, I made the mistake of visiting three cities in a week since airfare in between European countries is relatively cheap. Not only was my time in certain countries limited, which didn't allow for me to fully enjoy the experience, I was also exhausted and stressed out from sight-seeing and bouncing around airports." – Paula Dixon, Curly Hair Adventures
The remedy: Remember that a vacation is supposed to be just that: a vacation. Build your itinerary around a couple of "must visit" locations or sights, allowing time to savor things like unscheduled exploration and leisurely meals. Marching from one sight or city to another can suck the joy out of a trip – especially if there's a significant amount of travel between them. Want a rough guide? The site Days in a City suggests how long you may want to spend in major destinations.
The mistake: "This happened more recently than I like to admit, but I didn't realize that some countries won't allow you to enter if your passport will expire within three months of your visit. I had to scramble hard for a last-minute renewal and barely made my trip." – Erica Jackson Curran, Richmond, VA
The remedy: If you want to play it safe, your best bet is to ensure your passport is good for six full months beyond the dates of any international travel. A laundry list of countries, including Thailand, require that much time left on your passport beyond your departure date. Others may require three months' validity. Bottom line: Double-check every country's entry rules before booking.
The mistake: "My family was planning to meet me for a long weekend in Dublin while I lived in London. They were coming from different parts of the States, facing severe weather delays and last-second airport sprints. Me? I was coming from Dublin, the easiest trip of all. Who showed up last, several hours late? Me. Because the entire week I'd misread my departure time as my arrival time, so I showed up to the airport right after my flight took off. I ended up eating the cost, buying another flight and learning an incredibly valuable lesson." – Stephanie Vermillion, The Wanderlost Way
The remedy: Look closely – very closely – at your travel reservations. Ensure you know whether you're looking at departure time, not arrival time, and don't confuse a.m. and p.m. – a particularly common error, according to the travelers we spoke with. And remember that date conventions vary abroad: Month often comes before day. So don't book that ticket for 3/9 thinking you're traveling in March, only to find you've actually booked in early September.
The mistake: "We didn't thoroughly inspect the rental car, inside and out. We rented one in Hawaii that was infested with roaches. They just kept appearing from door frames and wherever. It was gross." – Krista Looper, Knoxville, TN
The remedy: Always give any rental car a thorough once-over. Outside, you'll need to note any damage (yes, even small door dings) in case the company tries to charge you for something that happened before you were ever behind the wheel. Take pictures for proof. Inside, you can ensure the car has been thoroughly cleaned (and yes, you can check for bugs, too). If something is amiss, insist on a replacement.
The mistake: "My most memorable rookie mistake is from my first visit to Japan. I took a full-size rolling suitcase not realizing the gauntlet I would need to navigate in the train stations. From dozens of small level changes (three to four steps each time) to narrow turnstiles that I had to lift the suitcase over, the suitcase was an absolute nightmare." – Craig Burdett, New York, NY
The remedy: Large roller bags are oh-so-convenient for domestic travel along smooth airport floors and sidewalks, but they can be a nightmare elsewhere, where you may have to deal with cobblestones, tons of steps, tight corners, and packed subways. Consider a wheeled backpack that can give you the convenience of being able to wear your bag when circumstances demand it, and wheel it other places where you can give your back a break.
The mistake: "It's easy to forget that you have to pay to use public restrooms sometimes, for instance in the Philippines. And it's easier to forget that sometimes they're not well-stocked. Even water can be hard to come by." – Rachel Sangchompuphen, Denver, CO
The remedy: Always keep a dollar or so in local currency reserved for a trip to the bathroom. In Europe, it's not uncommon to have to tip an attendant, or to have to insert coins into a free-standing stall before the door will open. A small roll of toilet paper and antibacterial gel can also be a life-saver, especially in developing countries.
The mistake: "U.S. citizens traveling to Machu Picchu only need a valid passport to enter Peru. But one woman's husband was traveling on an Indian passport and neglected to check the rules for entry, where he would have found out that he needed a visa. Sadly, he found out at the airport at check-in and was not allowed to board the flight to Peru. It was too late to get a visa for that trip." – Jacquie Whitt, Adios Adventure Travel
The remedy: Novice travelers may think a passport is all they need to jet all over the world, but that's not always the case. A visa is required for any stay in some countries, or a stay exceeding a certain length (over 90 days is common) for others. Always double-check before booking, and if a visa is required, determine how long it will take to get one. While some countries may offer a visa on arrival, others require you to mail in a visa application and wait, sometimes weeks, for approval.
The mistake: "We left Egypt with some leftover currency, not realizing the Egyptian pounds are one of the world's few non-convertible currencies. No one outside Egypt can exchange them for anything, so we're left with some very pretty (and rather expensive) souvenirs of our time in Egypt." – Chris Backe, One Weird Globe
The remedy: Don't exchange too much of your cash for local currency unless you're absolutely sure you'll use it all. It's true that currency from some countries, including Egypt, is nonconvertible because of government restrictions, meaning you won't be able to trade it for dollars once you're back. But it's best to use up even convertible currency, since you'll be smacked with steep fees taking it to an exchange place once you're home.
The mistake: "Although we've traveled extensively in the States, when we started traveling overseas as a family, we made the mistake of thinking things would be similar to the States. A suite hotel room in the States that is comfortable for a family of four is not the same as a suite hotel room across Europe, which barely fit two of us, let alone the whole family!" – Heidi McBain, Flower Mound, TX
The remedy: Americans often find that hotel rooms in other countries cram standard amenities into half the usual space. But there are often other differences, too – for instance, an elevator may not be a given, and your room for two may actually come with two twin beds instead of a spacious king or queen. Carefully confirm whether a hotel has the amenities you want before booking. And if you must have a larger room, you may have better luck outside historic city centers, where older buildings often dictate tighter quarters.
The mistake: "I checked in all my electronics -- hard drive, speaker, compact camera, spare phone -- into my locked luggage at Lombok Airport (in Indonesia). Airport workers stole only my electronics and left everything else intact, and it wasn't till I was home that I realized it. What made matters worse was there was a 'syndicate' working in Lombok Airport doing exactly that -- scanning luggage for electronics, stealing stuff and selling it on an online marketplace -- so I never got anything back." – Charlene Fang, Singapore
The remedy: Don't check anything valuable unless you absolutely have to. Luggage locks are obviously easy for thieves to defeat, and even if your belongings aren't stolen, there's always a chance that your bag could get lost for days (or permanently). Don't forget to leave your chargers out of your checked bag, too – that laptop will be pretty useless once the battery dies.
The mistake: "I thought I was being so clever by booking business-class tickets to and from Europe with miles with a lap infant added. I ended up paying thousands of dollars for my son to fly on my lap (British Air typically charges 10 percent of the ticket price for a lap infant). It would have been cheaper and more comfortable if we booked him his own seat with us in coach. Less miles, too." – Tawny Clark, Tacoma, WA
The remedy: Traveling with children can introduce a whole new level of complexity to any trip, particularly when it comes to air travel. For instance, lap children aren't free on foreign airlines, but the silver lining is that, unlike U.S. airlines, some foreign airlines offer reduced fares for children. Families may also want to consider roomier accommodations like Airbnbs instead of cramped hotel rooms, which may have limited room for kiddos.
The mistake: "When I traveled to Costa Rica last year, I knew I absolutely had to see Manuel Antonio Park. This beachfront rainforest paradise is a major tourist destination, and it kept showing up as a 'must see' place in all my pre-travel research. I planned to visit Manuel Antonio at the end of my trip, thinking I was saving the best for last. I arrived at crack of dawn on Monday morning, only to learn that the park is closed on Mondays. I never even considered that a national park might be perpetually closed one day of the week, and I didn't think to check online before driving halfway across the country to see it." – Nic Wynn, See Nic Wander
The remedy: Americans accustomed to 24/7 everything may be confounded that even the biggest tourist attractions have limited hours. It's not uncommon for major museums to be shut down at least one day a week, and historical sites in particular are vulnerable to long closures for renovation work. Local holidays, strikes, and weather conditions can also close attractions. Always plan ahead, and for particularly popular attractions, consider buying tickets in advance if possible to ensure your spot.
The mistake: "Thinking Texas in January would be blazing hot, and being cold and under-dressed! I remember trying to take notes during a walking tour -- that I was the only person on -- and my hands were numb. This was 2016, and I didn't even think to check the weather in advance. I just followed a preconceived notion as a Canadian that states like Texas had summer year-round." – Jennifer Bain, Toronto
The remedy: Of course, check weather averages before you jet off for any destination – HolidayWeather.com will give you historic data and long-range forecasts – but smart packing can help blunt any surprises. Packing plenty of lightweight layers can be a winning strategy in all but the most extreme climates, allowing you to load up or strip down as necessary.
The mistake: "I booked a crazy (airline) itinerary to save a few dollars -- it took me over 24 hours to get home. I probably spent what I would have saved in the extra cost to get to a farther away airport and in what I ate at the airport during the 6-hour delay." – Suzanne Cope, New York, NY
The remedy: Remember that time is money, even when you're traveling. If you're tempted to forgo the nonstop flight in favor of the money-saving trip that requires two layovers, ensure you have enough time to make your connections – and enough snacks to keep you from overspending on pricey airport food. The same principle also applies to other parts of your itinerary, like accommodations. That budget hotel on the edge of town might not be a good deal if you need to spend big on taxi fares or subway tickets each time you want to check an item off your sightseeing list.
The mistake: "I was pickpocketed on the subway in Paris by someone hiding among the business travelers. He timed it so he could jump off the subway in front of everyone coming and going right as the doors opened. I had a choice: Chase him and risk arrest in a foreign country or stand there and watch him grab cash and toss the wallet into a trash can. I chose the latter, and then spent my first day in Paris calling credit-card companies and banks in the States." – Jeff Peterson, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
The remedy: Any reasonably crowded tourist destination will have its share of pickpockets, and they'll have a variety of sophisticated techniques. Keeping your wallet in any unsecured, easy-to-reach back pocket is a definite no-no. A money belt worn under your clothing can be much safer for cash and important travel documents like your passport. Instead of a backpack, consider getting a messenger bag with a slash-proof strap that you can keep a hand on at all times.
The mistake: "We took some trips that involved some physically challenging or risky activities early on and never had travel insurance. We were fortunate that nothing ever happened, but we've seen a number of friends hurt, hospitalized, needing special treatment, and we consider ourselves very lucky." – Diana Lambdin Meyer, Kansas City, MO
The remedy: Before any kind of international travel – especially trips that might involve adventure activities of any kind – ensure that your health insurance plan will cover you in case something goes wrong (there's a reasonable chance it won't). You may want to consider travel health insurance, available as either a standalone policy or part of a more comprehensive general travel insurance policy. Before buying, make sure you read all the fine print, as some will exclude that bungee jumping excursion you have your heart set on, and others will bar pre-existing conditions, among other things.
The mistake: "Only traveling with a companion. Turns out I love solo travel and prefer it to traveling with friends, but for years I was too afraid to travel alone. When I travel with other people, I'm always keenly aware of their needs and what they want to get out of the trip. When I travel alone, those concerns fade away. I stop worrying about what I 'should' be doing and instead enjoy whatever it is I am doing." – Clara Sherley-Appel, Santa Cruz, CA
The remedy: In a world based on double occupancy, solo travel may seem daunting and expensive. But it doesn't have to be. Hostels with inexpensive single beds can be a great option for solo travelers, and they tend to foster a community feel that can make the experience less isolating. Some cruise ships even feature "studio cabins" meant for one, and there are organized tours that cater to individuals, too, without pricey single-supplement surcharges.
The mistake: "I was 23 and traveling with my boyfriend in Costa Rica. We arrived in a beach town on a bus after dark. We put everything in our little motel room and walked across the street to an open-air snack place on the beach. We could see the hotel's front door and no one went in and out. Someone came in through the back and stole only my passport -- no money, nothing else, and left the pouch lying on the bed. Three days later I finally realized it was gone. We had to alter the rest of our plans to go back to San Jose and spend eight hours and several hundred dollars so I would be able to get on the plane and come home." – Brittany Loubier, Tampa, FL
The remedy: If your room doesn't have a safe with a combination you can set, you're probably safer keeping your passport on you at all times. And before you even leave, you should make a few copies of the ID page. Leave one at home with an emergency contact, and keep one buried in your luggage. Having a copy will make it easier to replace. (It's wise to do the same with your credit cards, driver's license, and any other important documents, too.)
The remedy: Don't take for granted that you'll always be able to pull up important information on your phone – the battery might run out, or you may not be able to find Wi-Fi. Printing out your reservation info can offer some peace of mind when you're on the go. At the very least, write down addresses and reservation or confirmation numbers and tuck the paper into your wallet.
The mistake: "We were taking our kids on a road trip out West. We didn't book hotels in advance on each leg because we weren't sure how far we'd make it each day. We were drop-dead exhausted when we finally decided to call it a night and look for a room. Turns out every single place for miles was booked by bikers heading to the annual rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. We ended up spending a very uncomfortable night sleeping in our van." – Darlene Smith, Piqua, OH
The remedy: Though some travelers appreciate the flexibility that can come from not booking accommodations in advance, the strategy can backfire in a big way, especially during busy tourism seasons. Be particularly careful leaving bookings to chance in areas where there aren't a lot of options. Double-check for events like big conferences, sporting events, or festivals that can make rooms tough to find. If you still decide to wait until the last minute, know that you may pay a premium for a place you wouldn't otherwise look twice at.
The mistake: "Somehow I always tend to forget that the shoes that are fine for wearing every day at home aren't so comfortable when you walk in them for six-plus hours a day." – Heather Kenny, Chicago, IL
The remedy: Blisters are one of the most painful ways novice travelers learn this valuable lesson: Comfort always triumphs over fashion when you're seeing the world. Consider what kind of trip you're heading out on before picking footwear. After all, urban sightseeing, hardcore hiking, and beach-bum paradise will put very different demands on your feet. If you're buying new, test them out extensively in the store, and don't bring more than a couple pairs if you don't have to, since shoes are heavy space hogs inside your luggage.
The mistake: "The nagging problem I always had while starting out traveling abroad was not accounting for faux paux and finicky differences between countries, even ones sharing a border. Everything from having the wrong size electric plug to not having properly modest clothing for the United Arab Emirates" – Christine Smith, Los Angeles, CA
The remedy: Sadly, Americans are common offenders when it comes to committing cultural faux pas, however unintentional. To avoid this misbehavior, do your research with a guide book or travel site that specifically covers your target destination. Look for sections on cultural awareness and boundaries that cover ways to respectfully carry yourself as well as stay safe.